The city of OAXACA sprawls across a grand expanse of deep-set valley, 1600m above sea level. Its colour, folklore, indigenous markets and magnificent colonial centre make it one of the country’s most rewarding destinations even though, with a population of over 250,000, it is well on its way to becoming an industrial city. Many streets are choked and noisy and a thin veil of smog often enshrouds the valley – yet in the colonial centre the city’s provincial charm is hardly affected and just about everything can be reached on foot. Simply being in Oaxaca, wandering through its streets and absorbing its life, is an experience, especially if you happen to catch the city during a fiesta (they happen all the time – see Fiestas in Oaxaca). The city is an important artistic centre, too, with several state-run and private galleries, craft and jewellery masterclasses and regular exhibitions.

Among the highlights of any visit are the Museo de las Culturas and the Museo Tamayo, the markets (craft shopping in Oaxaca ranks with the best in the country) and the churches of Santo Domingo and La Soledad, along with the nearby archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla.

Brief history

Once central to the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations, Oaxaca had a limited role during the early years of the Spanish Conquest. Cortés, attracted by the area’s natural beauty, created the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and until the Revolution his descendants held vast estates hereabouts. For practical purposes, though, the area was of little interest to the Spaniards, with no mineral wealth and, due to the rugged mountain terrain, no great agricultural value (though coffee was grown). This meant that the indigenous population was largely left to get on with life and did not have to deal with much outside influence beyond the interference of a proselytizing Church.

Nevertheless, by 1796 Oaxaca had become the third largest city in Nueva España, thanks to the export of cochineal and, later, textile manufacturing. In the nineteenth century it produced two of Mexico’s most influential statesmen: Benito Juárez is commemorated everywhere in Oaxaca, a privilege not shared by Porfirio Díaz, the second most famous Oaxaqueño, whose dictatorship most people have chosen to forget. Thereafter Oaxaca was something of a political backwater until autumn 2006, when it made international headlines as striking teachers occupied the city’s main plaza and clashed with riot police in a dispute that began over wages and mushroomed into protests over corruption and political cronyism; the city is perfectly safe for tourists but occasional protests and demos rumble on to this day.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Mexico features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The world's quirkiest food festivals

The world's quirkiest food festivals

Tomato-drenched crowds wading through a lake of passata at Valencia’s La Tomatina festival might be a familiar image, but such passionate and eccentric cele…

22 Dec 2017 • Lucy Cowie insert_drive_file Article
Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

That ever-growing travel wish list might be putting some pressure on your pocket – but there are plenty of destinations where you'll get more bang for your b…

11 Oct 2017 • Emma Gibbs camera_alt Gallery
The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

There's nothing like an amazing view to inspire you to book your next trip, whether you're drawn by rolling countryside, isolated islands or soaring mountain …

30 Aug 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right